Climate Change Nuclear

Would 10,000 nuclear power stations cook the planet?

The following question (or variants thereof) have come up so many times in the comments on this blog that I think the answer deserves a post in its own right:

If we had thousands of nuclear power stations, the heat they produced would cause significant global warming — as such, nuclear power is not a solution to anthropogenic climate change.

Okay, let’s look at a couple of ways to address this problem.


Prof. David Mackay of the University of Cambridge (and contributor to SCGI), had the following to say in his great book, Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air:

If we got lots and lots of power from nuclear fission or fusion, wouldn’t this contribute to global warming, because of all the extra energy being released into the environment?

That’s a fun question. And because we’ve carefully expressed everything in this book in a single set of units, it’s quite easy to answer.

First, let’s recap the key numbers about global energy balance from p20: the average solar power absorbed by atmosphere, land, and oceans is 238 watts per square metre (W/m2); doubling the atmospheric CO2 concentration would effectively increase the net heating by 4 W/m2.

This 1.7% increase in heating is believed to be bad news for climate. Variations in solar power during the 11-year solar cycle have a range of 0.25 W/m2. So now let’s assume that in 100 years or so, the world population is 10 billion, and everyone is living at a European standard of living, using 125 kWh per day derived from fossil sources, from nuclear power, or from mined geothermal power.

The area of the earth per person would be 51 000 m2. Dividing the power per person by the area per person, we find that the extra power contributed by human energy use would be 0.1 W/m2. That’s one fortieth (1/40) of the 4 W/m2 that we’re currently fretting about, and a little smaller than the 0.25 W/m2 effect of solar variations. So yes, under these assumptions, human power production would just show up as a contributor to global climate change.


Dr. George Stanford, also of SCGI, took a different tack:

Consider a global population of 7 billion people (7E9). Average solar power hitting the earth’s surface at ground level is about 1 kW/m2 x pi x (6400 km)2 = 1.3E14 kW. That’s 18.4 MW (18,400 kW) per person from the sun.

In 2007, the U.S. used 101 quads of energy = 101 x 2.93E11 kWh = 3.0E13 kWh, for an average power usage of 3.4E9 kW. The population of the U.S. is about 300 million (300E8).  Thus average power consumption per person = 3.4E9/3.0E8 = 11 kW [Ed: check I — this is 265 kWh/day in Mackay’s terms, which is about right — the US has about twice the energy use of Europeans].

Thus if the whole world used energy at the per capita rate of the U.S., that would be adding 11 / 18,400 = 0.06% to the total energy input to the Earth system. (By the way, that’s about 6 times the rate at which geothermal energy reaches the surface.)


Here’s another, simple way to look at it. Have a look at this page on Wikipedia on solar energy, in particular, this table:

Yearly Solar fluxes & Human Energy Consumption
Solar 3,850,000 EJ
Wind 2,250 EJ
Biomass 3,000 EJ
Primary energy use (2005) 487 EJ
Electricity (2005) 56.7 EJ

Primary (thermal) annual energy use by humans in 2005 was ~500 exajoules (EJ; see here for explanation of this and other energy terms), compared to 3.85 million EJ received from the sun. What if we quadrupled this thermal energy production by the year 2100, to 2,000 EJ/year? We would then be producing the equivalent of 0.05 % of the solar energy input.

In its 11 year solar cycle, the sun currently fluctuates between ~1,365 to 1,367 W/m2. In percent terms this is a min-max variation at the top of the atmosphere of ~0.15 %. Compare to the above figure of 0.05 %, if humanity was producing 2,000 EJ of thermal energy per year —  1/3 of the sun’s total variability. Given that the thermal [heat] energy from power stations would be released at the Earth’s surface, and would thus tend to be trapped by tropospheric  greenhouse gases, it would be more influential than top-of-the-atmosphere climate forcing, but still small compared to aerosols and GHGs.


So would the waste fission heat from 10,000 nuclear power stations, expelled into the environment via their cooling systems, cause significant global warming? Short answer: No [Long answer: Well, not really].

Based on the mid-point estimate of climate sensitivity, fast forcing yields 0.75°C of global temperature rise per W/m2 of forcing. As such, Mackay’s estimate of 0.1 W/m2 would predict an equilibrium warming of 0.075°C for the worst-case scenario. Although this is definitely detectable, to put it in context, it is less warming than we’ve experienced in just the last decade due to increases in CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

Currently, the direct heat (not CO2) from our coal/nuclear power stations and oil/gas combustion might have contributed ~0.01°C to global warming, versus the observed warming over the last century of 0.8°C. Historically, thermal pollution could explain 1 – 2% of anthropogenic global warming.

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By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

48 replies on “Would 10,000 nuclear power stations cook the planet?”

Also, that 0.1 W/m^2 would be only heat, and so, unlike the effects of increased atmospheric CO2, could be well compensated for by increasing the albedo of a few parts per thousand of the planet’s surface.

This becomes important when there are 100 billion people on the planet, and each of them, in his or her lifetime, makes 100 return trips to space via nuclear rockets that heat the upper atmosphere both when lifting off and when doing a powered backing-down from orbit. Some whitening probably is needed then.

(Boron: A Better Energy Carrier than Hydrogen?)


I’ve been thinking about this for a while after first coming across the idea in one of Arthur C. Clark’s books, he called it a ‘thermal crisis.’ Good to have some numbers on it, thanks.

Does anyone know how many fossil fuel power plants we have on Earth at present?


AdamB, globally, we generate about 2,000 GWe average electrical power, of which ~15% is nuclear + 15% hydro. The remaining ~70% is fossil fuel powered (non-hydro renewables are still ’rounding error’), so ~1,400 GWe — the equivalent of a few thousand ‘large’ power stations (in reality, there are more than this because they’re a mix of sizes).

Some nice charts here:


This is just another attempt to tar nuclear energy with the ‘it’s not as clean as you say’ brush. We have already seen the lengths that the antinuclear side will try and go to dreaming up ways to pin carbon burdens on nuclear energy.

First it was the execrable Storm van Leeuwen and Smith effort. Then we were treated to one pre-Copenhagen report that arbitrarily assigned the equivalent carbon production of natural gas to nuclear power in France, for the purposes of creating a European CO2 report-card. And lately a risible attempt to charge nuclear energy with the CO2 production of the ‘inevitable’ nuclear war that the adoption of this technology would surly precipitate, in another report.

Now it’s the thermal burden. I suspect the same quality of reasoning is going to be used here as well. I only hope that in desperation, the false logic they come up with will at least be as amusing as what they used with carbon. I always like a good laugh.


Please correct me if I am wrong, but the scenarios above all seem to be dealing with the issue as a “flow problem” i.e. when in fact the eventual heating is a “stock problem” – it’s cumulative.

I suspect the question at hand has at least some connection to Eric Chaisson’s 2008 AGU paper:

Even if civilization on Earth stops polluting the biosphere with greenhouse gases, humanity
could eventually be awash in too much heat, namely, the dissipated heat by-product generated by
any nonrenewable energy source. Apart from the Sun’s natural aging—which causes an
approximately 1% luminosity rise for each 108 years and thus about 1°C increase in Earth’s
surface temperature—well within 1000 years our technological society could find itself up
against a fundamental limit to growth: an unavoidable global heating of roughly 3°C dictated
solely by the second law of thermodynamics, a biogeophysical effect often ignored when
estimating future planetary warming scenarios.

Some press discussions in my folder here (Boston Globe) and here (New Scientist).

Granted, it’s all about perspective. We need to deal with the much more pressing “forcing” from GHG’s before we need to worry about this other eventuality. But if there is any lesson that we should have learned from the mess we are in now – it is to try to understand the eventual consequences of our current energy choices. Chaisson’s timetable for consequential “non-GHG heating” seems to be on the century-to-millenium scale, so presumably we can do many other things in the interim (like potentially draw down CO2 from the atmosphere). But just as GHG’s were a stock problem, not a flow problem – let’s not make the same mistake in our thinking here.

Or, as I said in the opening, somebody correct me if I have misinterpreted this.


By the way, sorry for the formatting of the abstract above, BUT EVEN MORE IMPORTANTLY – while copying the abstract over WordPress seems to have mangled the formatting of one of the numbers. W.r.t. sun’s luminosity – that number should read 10^8 years (100,000,000 years), not 108 years.


‘rustneversleeps’ writes

… Please correct me if I am wrong, but the scenarios above all seem to be dealing with the issue as a “flow problem” i.e. when in fact the eventual heating is a “stock problem” – it’s cumulative….

You are wrong because the papers you cite assume exponentially increasing flow of heat from man-made devices into the Earth’s surface and troposphere. Of course, if this increase never stops, and is of such an annual percentage rate that after centuries it could become harmful to the earth, then it could, after centuries, become harmful. Or in the phrasing of the abstract, “could eventually”. If dogs grew increasingly large wheels, we could eventually not need streetcars.

(How fire can be domesticated)


McKay’s analysis is clear enough as an answer, rustneversleeps. The issue is indeed about heating, but a constant additional heating effect will not build up a stock of heat energy that fries the Earth. Instead it will produce a tiny increase in temperature that radiates away the extra heat, at a new equilibrium temperature. I think the paper you refer to probably considers a continuing unchecked increase in humanity’s energy use and numbers – a different problem altogether.

The reason greenhouse gases are so problematic is that they modify the existing process of ridding the Earth of the energy from massive heating effect of the Sun. Small effects in that gigantic heat flow can produce significant changes to equilibrium.


Look, I really don’t have a dog in this hunt, because I do not consider this a big priority relative to dealing with the GHG problem. But I don’t think you are correct, G.R.L. Cowan. There is no need for “exponentially increasing” the flow. So long as we are a net positive forcing we would increase the heat in the system until we reached a new thermal equilibrium.

What Chaisson is saying is that to the extent that we use energy sources that are in addition to the natural energy budget flow of the planet (i.e. basically wind, wave, solar, tide)… we are adding to the energy budget in the atmosphere, and some of this will be retained as heat. Nuclear, fossil fuels, geothermal (to the extent that we accelerate the natural flow) and things like space solar would all qualify. It doesn’t matter if the amount is “growing exponentially” or staying constant. We would be adding – cumulatively – to the heat.

I don’t want to get into this too much, because I am basically sold on the need for large-scale nuclear deployment. I don’t consider this issue a show-stopper for nuclear when stacked up against the much more dire heating from GHG’s, and the fact that it would buy us time to do other things like draw down atmospheric CO2 – the net “cooling”effect of which would dwarf the heat coming from the nuclear facilities. But I don’t think you should simply wave this away as a “non-issue” either, for credibility purposes anyway. Acknowledge, frame it in context, and move forward. My concern with explaining it away with “flow” arguments stands.


John Cook at ScepticalScience wrote:

Since 1970, the Earth’s heat content has been rising at a rate of 6 x 10^21 Joules per year. In more meaningful terms, the planet has been accumulating energy at a rate of 190,260 GigaWatts. Considering a typical nuclear power plant has an output of 1 GigaWatt, imagine 190,000 nuclear power plants pouring their energy output directly into our oceans.

The full article here:


So long as we are a net positive forcing we would increase the heat in the system until we reached a new thermal equilibrium.

… Nuclear, fossil fuels, geothermal (to the extent that we accelerate the natural flow) and things like space solar would all qualify … We would be adding – cumulatively – to the heat.

The words of ‘rustneversleeps’ that I have emphasized show that he contradicts himself. I think this is the last that should be said on the matter by anyone but him. It will certainly be the last from me.

(Boron: A Better Energy Carrier than Hydrogen?)


What seems strange to me is outback geothermal stations sited atop areas with a geothermal flux of 0.1 w/m2 yet they routinely get daytime solar intensities of 1000 w/m2 on the surface. OK so they work at night and are tapping into deep heat reservoirs. I understand on a volume basis the granites may generate as little as .005 w/m3 from radioactive decay which is decidedly thin. I can’t find the link but I believe the Federal govt has so far helped geothermal companies to the tune of $290m. Since not a lot has happened I don’t think we have to fear human accelerated heat release from geothermal.


The disk of the earth is constantly illuminated by around 175,000 TW of sunlight. It is speculated that solar output may vary by around1% from time to time, so we have a natural variation there of around 2000 TW. That’s over 100 times humanity’s current total global power use. We have a fair range to expand there to take full care of all human energy needs including projected human population increases and provide a high energy, wealthy future for that eventual population well before we run into constraints imposed by earth’s thermal barrier.


First it is said (above) that the variation on solar power is 0.25 Wm-2 over the 11 year cycle.

Then it is reported (above) that the variation is 2 Wm-2 (from 1365 to 1367).

How is Joe Public supposed to take this?


First it is said (above) that the variation on solar power is 0.25 Wm-2 over the 11 year cycle.

Then it is reported (above) that the variation is 2 Wm-2 (from 1365 to 1367).

How is Joe Public supposed to take this?

The greater the natural variation, the stronger my point about the lack of impact of thermal output from nuclear plants.


OK so they work at night and are tapping into deep heat reservoirs. I understand on a volume basis the granites may generate as little as .005 w/m3 from radioactive decay which is decidedly thin.

I think you are missing three zeroes. In equilibrium with its many — 13, I think — unstable daughters, uranium gives 0.000095 microwatts per kg U, so your figure would require the cubic metre to contain ~50 kg U.

So hot dry rocks’ heat is nonrenewable. I speculate their helium might be more worthwhile than their heat.

(How fire can be domesticated)


GRLC I got the 5 microwatts per cubic metre of granite from the Geosciences Australia discussion on geothermal prospecting. I can’t quite reconcile that with your figures if granite is 2.5 t per cubic metre and mixed uranium isotopes are .01% by weight.

The problem with HDR geothermal wells will be radon in the steam. It should not be vented both to contain radon and because makeup water is scarce in the outback. People desperately want granite geothermal to work big time but so far it’s not happening.


“0.25 W/2 is approximately the semi-amplitude of the 11-year solar cycle at the surface (after averaging over day/night – which brings 1366 down to ~340 W/2). The 2 W/2 figure is the peak-to-peak amplitude at the top of the atmosphere”

Thank you, Barry … Joe Public understands now.


Wouldn’t the increased albedo from solar power farms pose a similar “problem”?

Thanks for a great site btw, I’ve been anti nuclear until quite recently and the wealth of information here has been very helpful in changing my views?


Although it may be better explained by saying …

“The intensity of solar energy reaching the top of the atmosphere directly facing the Sun is around 1366 +- 1 Wm-2.

The earth’s surface is a sphere of area 4 x pi x r2. The earth’s surface facing the sun appears like a disc with an area pi x r2. ie 1/4 the earth’s area.

So the intensity of incoming solar energy averaged over the earth’s surface is not 1366 +- 1; it is 340 +- .25”


Wouldn’t the increased albedo from solar power farms pose a similar “problem”?

If solar power stations increased the albedo, aka the whiteness, of the land they were built on, that would be less heat for the Earth. Actually they reduce the albedo, and therefore do indeed promise to heat up the earth if built on a big enough scale.

Every energy geek discovers this, rather as Isaac Asimov independently discovered the necessary infinitude of the number of prime numbers, millennia after whoever was first recorded as discovering this. (Multiply all known primes together and add 1 to the product. Of this sum, none of them can be a factor.)

(Boron: A Better Energy Carrier than Hydrogen?)


“doubling the atmospheric CO2 concentration would effectively increase the net heating by 4 W/m2.
This 1.7% increase in heating is believed to be bad news for climate. Variations in solar power during the 11-year solar cycle have a range of 0.25 W/m2.”
Variations in solar power between perihelion and aphelion is more than 6 W/m2. And it’s happening EVERY year !
That’s the reason why the carbocentrism hysteria is unravelling.


Thanks for the correction G.R.L. Cowan.

I won’t claim having discovered it myself. I stumbled over it a few years ago reading about a solar chimney project.


geoff and all:

check out the second comment to the methane article.

a man in red holds a gun to a man in blue. the headline is “Socialism.”

the point is that this article on warming is “warmism” and is leading us all to socialism at gun point.

and they said with 9/11 that hysterical anti communism was dead (replaced for the moment by hysterical anti Islamism).


I would like to make a distinction between me and what I believe to be the bulk of environmentalists and I’m not going to feign impartiality; I hate these people with a passion.

There is a subset of environmentalists who believe there was some kind of pristine initial state before the arival of modern man; that any kind of possible impact man has on nature is in some way pernicious or degenerative.

They tend to describe the extraction of rare earth elements and other useful elements to highly technological human civilization from the Earth’s crust as “plunder” of the natural riches of nature by some kind of nasty monkey that grew a brain too big for his own good; they curiously omit what possible use any species not in posession of a magnificent brain could have for all these inaccessible ore-bodies of lanthanides.

This subset of environmentalists tend to hold the view that mankind must constrain its ambitions and quarantine itself from nature and be satisfied with a diminished life with as little impact on the sanctity of nature as possible; reducing impact on nature is always a good thing. A small minority go so far as to suggest it was a bad idea to eradicate small pox, for it played an important ecological role in constraining the cancerous growth of human civilization.

Not only do I not agree that this should be the goal of environmentalism; the policies these people tend to advocate lead to unmitigated coal burning and mass deaths and suffering(e.g. by strong-arming developing nations to not use cheap and effective DDT even just for combating malaria mosquitos in dwellings; by trying to prevent the ingress of modern agriculture and genetically modifed foods into Africa)

It takes a bit to motive why I hold this view in such contempt even as a goal, so bear with me.

Nature is fundamentally anti-gaian; the first mass-extinction was the build up of nasty, poisonous free oxygen gas by cyanobacteria and other early photosynthetic organisms. Free oxygen is about as horrible to primitive anaerobic bacteria as ozone is to human beings.

Not content with inflicting this ‘oxygen catastrophe’ on the on the “pristine” natural world of the time, the photosynthesizing organisms then depleted the Earths protective methane and carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere that had kept the oceans nice and liquid; ice sheets spread across the globe, possibly even to the equator as the sun was at the time several percent weaker than today.

Then rose the multicellular organisms; greatly disrupting and changing what had been a happy and peaceful world(supposedly) of unicellular organisms. The ediacaran biota proliferated all across the world and suddenly all but disappeared; we don’t know why, but it coincided with a rise of CO2 to ~7000 ppm and the cambrian explosion of novel multicellular life-forms. What followed was periods of slow change interspersed with mass-extinctions and rapid change. Several of these mass-extinctions are believed to have been caused by oceanic anoxic conditions; bacteria eating using up all the O2 in large areas of ocean, letting those anaerobic bacteria that had almost been killed off by oxygen polluting photosynthesizing organisms to reclaim the oceans and no longer stay ocean floors and other anoxic place. Once in the oceans they produced such great quantities of hydrogen sulfide, a nasty metabolic poison tht erradicate most species of oxygen-breathing multicellular organisms. This happened not just once, but many times, and seems to have coincided with the burial of vast quantities of the fossil carbon that we are now releasing back into the atmosphere with various ill effects.

There is no magical lost paradise. There is no inherent good in preserving the status quo. Life is inherently a thing of creative destruction, which moves from one stable equilibria to the next. The purpose of environmentalism should not be to expend heroic effort to sustain the present forever, until the solar wind boils off the atmosphere and the sun heats up and the Earth enters a second bacterial age.

We are not capable of knowing or even defining what is a good way for the Earth to spend the next few billion years in some kind of objective way. The best we can do is make life better for humans and our sucessors with all that this entails.

Since we don’t know what works and what does not, it is necessary to proceed on a basis of trial and error. To experiment massively on a small scale, trying to keep the unavoidable and frequent mistakes(from our own perspective) small and local if possible rather than systemic and universal.To copy what works and discard what does not.

Avoiding species extinction is generally but _not_ universally a good idea. We don’t know what kind of interesting genetic information rare plants and fungi contain; what kind of interesting chemicals they might contain. There is nothing inherently good about keeping tigers around, but enough humans seem to like the photogenic creatures that it contributes significantly to human well being to keep them around. There is nothing inherently good about keeping forests in an unperturbed state, but it is a good idea to keep some forests unperturbed state so as to be able to reverse some mistakes we are likely to commit.

So what was the point of this whole rant? If we have gob-smackingly huge amounts of energy; to the point that climate change from waste-heat alone becomes a concern, we will not have any problem using some tiny fraction of the vast amount of energy we produce to cope with the change. If we have ridiculously huge amounts of energy we can just suck some CO2 out of the atmosphere to largely componsate for it; we can accept that the new distribution of heat which is not exactly the same as the old would have consequences for nature. In the short term those consequences are a disequilibrium, but over a handful of millenia some species will go extinct, some species will adapt, new species will evolve and the change will slow down as we reach some new rough equilibrium. There is nothing inherently bad about climate change; it is the human misery of the various unintended and largely not forecastable consequences that our current societies are not well adapted to that make it worthwhile to expend significant resources to avoid carbon emissions.


Soylent: you would probably find much to agree with in Lovelock’s new book.

and it is a pretty good book. He’s not very happy with the peace loving environmentalists who want to save the planet. He says the planet is not a peaceful place but is filled with surprises, jumps in climate state etc.

and the planet will take care of itself but it might be bad news for humans and so for humans sake, build nuclear. He makes in one sentence the argument that Peter Lang makes with much more empirical evidence. a power system based on wind and solar would need a whole shadow back up, rendering the first redundant.


@Soylent: as your statement seems to be Dawkins-style anthropocentric humanism ie teleological Christianity minus God (cf John Gray’s analysis in his various books), it is unsurprising that you “hate”. After all, even the secular religious need a Devil. So Lucifer is now online:


it says that 3 of 9 identifiable life support system boundaries have been exceeded. The 28 scientists included Hansen, Lenton, Crutzen and Schellnhuber.

You write: “Avoiding species extinction is generally but _not_ universally a good idea”

But they recommend a long-term extinction rate of 10 species per million per annum, inasmuch as the threshold for ecosystem collapse and the key players in them, are unknown. You however seem to book this under “trial and error.”

You praise genfood and (water-intensive?) modern agriculture: but given that WTO rules are mainly written by US agribusiness, I and not a few Indian farmers (those that have no suicided yet) fail to see how their current and pending below-subsistence lives are justified by dividends for agrobusiness equities on the NYSE. cf Vananda Shiva.

Lastly, you seem to have been consorting only with secular Greens, who you hate because they do not stress the sapiens in homo. But in the USA at least, there are millions of Christians who while loading buckshot to blow away those pesky Greens can quote you Holy Scripture to back up your view that God put Man in charge of His creation. So how do you view your de facto allies?


solar heating and albedo:

great refutation of the solar albedo argument on real climate–made evidently by the freakonomics guy. a solar fan sent this to me; the irony is he wanted to maintain the validity of the nuke heat argument!

Pierrehumbert’s point is that ghgs are the main thing, not waste heat: which is a trivial issue, whatever the heat source.

I saw that geoff russel liked this argument and indeed it’s entertaining.


Soylent – As in most things it seems, I totally agree with you. Much of the type of thinking you are referring to, seem to me to be an echo of the Calvinistic dualism, that seems to underpin moral and ethical thinking in the Anglosphere, It’s as if having largely rejected the trappings of formal religion, there is this knot of the residual indoctrinated guilt that faith used to keep the people under its thumb. that still controls their thinking.

It is a pernicious meme that has to be exorcized from our culture.


except, DV, to be clear, it’s odd that soylent rejects “gaian” thinking or argues that nature is “anti gaian.”

Lovelock, the guy who recruited the term to describe the earth as a living organism, is hardly a Calvinist nor is he the kind of malthusian (although he puts more emphasis on population growth’s causal role in warming than, say, a marxist would) narcissist soylent bemoans. He neither anthropomorphizes nature nor romanticizes it in “primitivist” fashion, however much he loves the planet.

His assumptions about earth as an organism are perfectly compatible with the creative destruction and unstable equilibria soylent mentions: in fact, L himself uses this language.


gregory meyerson – Gaian thinking, as you call it is to me a lazy God-in-the-gaps type excuse for not making the effort to really understand what is going on. Holistic thinking has its place, but as always there is the risk of losing sight of the trees when looking at the forest.

Humans are part of nature to be sure, but we are also unique in that we can modify the earth wholesale, and know that we are doing it. Common sense dictates that we carefully consider what we are doing when we make these changes, simply because they may have deleterious impacts down the road.

There is nothing mystical about this, I just don’t think it needs be served up with a side-order of existential guilt, or by evoking specious ideas like Gaia into the discussion.


have you read lovelock’s book? I am not calling it Gaian thinking (it’s JL’s term) and what he says doesn’t sound particularly mystical to me. The Gaia part really amounts to complex systems thinking critical of IPCC gradualism: its (the IPCC consensus) presumed difficulty dealing in its reports with non linear change, unstable equilirbria, etc.

barry reviewed it by the way. I’m just getting to it now.


No I have not read this book as yet, but it would seem that I am going to have to. However the name ‘Gaia’ is in general not one that I am comfortable with, because it is most often flung about as a form of hand-waving, and I have little patience with that.


I read Lovelock’s book (Revenge of Gaia) a while ago. Its one of the few books I have read that went straight into the bin, basically for DV82XL’s reasons. That is, to the extent ‘Gaia’ represents the functioning of interacting earth systems, I agree with it, but it adds nothing. The extent that it adds anything beyond that, its wrong.

That’s not to say the concept is not a great one if speaking poetically; just don’t get your categories confused.


No better answer to this than Ray Pierrehumbert bah humbug to Steve Levitt (he is talking about solar vs coal but the same goes for nuclear)
Wherever it comes from, waste heat is not usually taken into account in global climate calculations for the simple reason that it is utterly trivial in comparison to the heat trapped by the carbon dioxide that is released when you burn fossil fuels to supply energy. For example, that 6 trillion Watts of waste heat from coal burning would amount to only 0.012 Watts per square meter of the Earth’s surface. Without even thinking very hard, you can realize that this is a tiny number compared to the heat-trapping effect of CO2. As a general point of reference, the extra heat trapped by CO2 at the point where you’ve burned enough coal to double the atmospheric CO2 concentration is about 4 Watts per square meter of the Earth’s surface — over 300 times the effect of the waste heat.

The “4 Watts per square meter” statistic gives us an easy point of reference because it is available from any number of easily accessible sources, such as the IPCC Technical Summary or David Archer’s basic textbook that came out of our “Global Warming for Poets” core course. Another simple way to grasp the insignificance of the waste heat effect is to turn it into a temperature change using the standard climate sensitivity of 1 degree C of warming for each 2 Watts per square meter of heat added to the energy budget of the planet (this sensitivity factor also being readily available from sources like the ones I just pointed out). That gives us a warming of 0.006 degrees C for the waste heat from coal burning, and much less for the incremental heat from switching to solar cells. It doesn’t take a lot of thinking to realize that this is a trivial number compared to the magnitude of warming expected from a doubling of CO2.

With just a little more calculation, it’s possible to do a more precise and informative comparison. For coal-fired generation,each kilowatt-hour produced results in emissions of about a quarter kilogram of carbon into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. For our 16.83 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity produced each year, we then would emit 4.2 trillion kilograms of carbon, i.e. 4.2 gigatonnes each year. Unlike energy, carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere, and builds up year after year. It is only slowly removed by absorption into the ocean, over hundreds to thousands of years. After a hundred years, 420 gigatonnes will have been emitted, and if half that remains in the atmosphere (remember, rough estimates suffice to make the point here) the atmospheric stock of CO2 carbon will increase by 210 gigatonnes, or 30% of the pre-industrial atmospheric stock of about 700 gigatonnes of carbon. To get the heat trapped by CO2 from that amount of increase, we need to reach all the way back into middle-school math and use the awesome tool of logarithms; the number is

(4 Watts per square meter) X log2(1.3)

or 1.5 Watts per square meter. In other words, by the time a hundred years have passed, the heat trapped each year from the CO2 emitted by using coal instead of solar energy to produce electricity is 125 times the effect of the fossil fuel waste heat. And remember that the incremental waste heat from switching to solar cells is even smaller than the fossil fuel waste heat. What’s more, because each passing year sees more CO2 accumulate in the atmosphere, the heat trapping by CO2 continues to go up, while the effect of the waste heat from the fossil fuels or solar cells needed to produce a given amount of electricity stays fixed. Another way of putting it is that the climate effect from the waste heat produced by any kind of power plant is a one-off thing that you incur when you build the plant, whereas the warming effect of the CO2 produced by fossil fuel plants continues to accumulate year after year. The warming effect of the CO2 is a legacy that will continue for many centuries after the coal has run out and the ruins of the power plant are moldering away.


eli: I already posted your link.

john: I’ve read 50 or so pages of Lovelock and Gaia so far for all practical purposes just means the “functioning of interacting earth systems,” ones he claims tended to be left out by many climate models. don’t know if this is true or not.

at any rate, i get your point if in fact gaia goes beyond evidence and explanatory power. I haven’t seen it yet and up to this point, the book is helpful as Hansen’s was.


Actually, Lovelock needs a stronger defense in CERTAIN respects than John’s dismissal, even if he did read the book. (there’s plenty to critique in Lovelock but that’s a separate issue)

Others noted quite recently the excellent skeptical science article that responded to the global cooling myth by showing the increasing heat content of the earth as a whole. Skeptical scientist argues that heat content is actually a more reliable measure of warming than average global temp and this is precisely the sort of argument that Lovelock himself makes quite nicely.

Lovelock asserts that “the most important quantity is not the global mean temperature but how much extra heat the earth has absorbed from the sun. The global mean temp is like the current account balance,” fluctuating year to year. “the total heat absorbed is an indication of the reserves.” He further looks at the decline of ocean algae as a more reliable sign of the heat budget than average global temps.

at any rate, nothing poetic or mystical here. I fail to see how skeptical science article is terrific while Lovelock goes in the garbage, John.

I admit. I have not finished the book and maybe Lovelock stops doing science and starts doing evidence free holism.


Soylent, I find much to agree with and much to disagree with in your ‘rant’. Being ornery, I’ll just focus on the latter, perhaps as exemplified here, after your brief synopsis of evolutionary history:

“Life is inherently a thing of creative destruction, which moves from one stable equilibria to the next. The purpose of environmentalism should not be to expend heroic effort to sustain the present forever ..”

Well, yes, perhaps, if the idea is that we’d want to arrest a dynamic biological system at some point in its evolution and then hold it in stasis forever thereafter. But I don’t think that’s a reasonable critique.

This argument is pretty much the same as one often heard from climate change deniers, namely, the climate has always been changing, why should we care overmuch if it is changing now? There are two basic answers to this – one is that the climate is changing precipitously, with severe impacts. The other is that we care now because we are living through it now.

In your case the question is simply paraphrased – the biosphere has always been dynamic and changing, why do we care if it continues to be so on our watch? The answer is basically the same though.

Another response is that, what you say may be true, but only insofar as we are talking about small perturbations to a larger and more slowly shifting ecological equilibrium.

You mentioned a couple of signal events in the history of life on earth – the loss of the Archaea, the loss of the Ediacarans, the Cambrian explosion, and subsequent extinction events. Each of these events tell us that when you prune a trunk from the tree of life, like any tree, you don’t have a trunk grow back, but other smaller branches crowd in to occupy the ecological niches left vacant (to the extent that those ecological niches remain). The more fundamental the innovation in body plans, morphology, cellular structures, metabolisms, biochemistries the earlier in the history of life we see it. The later history shows more incremental adaptation of existing designs.

To the degree that that generalization holds, the biosphere we currently have is essentially our taxonomic endowment on this planet going forward, on any timescale that has any relevance to humans as a species. The loss of any species is bad enough, but we’re looking at the loss of whole taxa – deeper prunings of the tree of life.

Preserving species is one thing. It requires preserving enough individuals of sufficient genetic diversity to retain adaptive robustness. Preserving taxa is another thing altogether. The necessary thing is to preserve functioning ecologies. But again, that means preserving sufficiently diverse habitats of sufficient scale that they retain adaptive robustness. Sadly, these sorts of habitats are now enumerable. And so it goes, up to larger interacting regions and niches, on upwards, up to the level of the whole biosphere.

With that background, it is certainly true that the purpose of environmentalism should not be to extend the present forever. But it probably should be to allow the process of creative destruction to move from one stable equilibrium to the next, as you put it. For that to happen requires retaining adaptive robustness at the level of the biosphere, which is also required at all the lower levels of ecological hierarchies. And that might well look like trying to extend the present forever, because ‘forever’ of any meaning on a human timescale is just not very long on the timescale of your creative/destructive equilibrium of life.

I think the thing that determines whether we have a process of creative destruction, rather than something more malignant, is the informational complexity of the biosphere. How much information, by whatever measure, is required to describe the functioning biosphere? As our equilibrium shifts, does the complexity remain the same, increase, or decrease? I’m only speculating, but I think a high level of complexity correlates with many things we value, both for utilitarian reasons and for aesthetics.

And why should we care? Why should we as post-ecological humans preference one configuration of the biosphere to another? Again, this is similar to the climate sceptics question, why should we prefer the climate we have now? The answer is similar: this is the climate, and the biosphere, that we evolved in, (and in the case of the biosphere, which co-evolved with us).

The utilitarian reasons are probably fairly obvious, eg. food. The aesthetic reasons are also fairly obvious, but perhaps run deeper than a superficial response to natural beauty. We are not disembodied Cartesian intelligences. Our intelligences are fully embodied, not just in our bodies, not just in the natural systems in which we are presently (or at least fairly recently) integrated, but in the full evolutionary history of our, and many earlier, species. Our psychological organization is something that comes out of the deep time of our evolutionary history. As we lose the the species and the habitats that are the external referents of internal psychological processes, do we lose those processes, are they frustrated, are we somehow diminished? I don’t know, but I do feel these things are important to us.

Sorry for the long post. That might look like its veering off into mysticism, but I don’t really think it is – it’s just a synthesis of system dynamics and evolutionary psychology. But feel free to write me off as a hopeless romantic.


The answer to the question is YES. A nuclear power station can cook the planet for the same reason that a butterfly can initiate a hurricane!! I think the analysis by BB is fallacious.


The article is incorrect with regards to nuclear power plants. Nuclear power plants in fact generate tremendous heat over the air directly above the power plant and this artificial heat results in a net increase in the global planetary temperature. I refer to this as artificial heat as opposed to heat generated by wood or coal, etc., because these forms of heat end up back in the carbon sink of the oceans of the world. So, a nuclear power plant actually causes a net planetary temperature increase, (Thermal Pollution).


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